Monday, February 8, 2010

Must Be In The Front Row!

Superman's there but kinda-not-really-in-some-ways. So's Spidey and most of The X-Men.

Batman is in there, in the VIP section. Has his spot roped off... or so I hear.

Wonder Woman's in there but she's always getting mistaken for a groupie.

Iron Man just made it in there a couple of years back and Green Lantern seems set to join him next year.

Most of these characters have permeated into the mainstream consciousness through different forays into mass media and all have one thing in common, they originated within the pages of a comic book.

The road from idea to comics to media darling often goes a little something like this:

Comic stand, someone buys it and has his or her mind blown, tells others. Someone on the lookout for "the next big thing" or someone who believes in the potential inherent in the concept or someone simply looking to fill time in a schedule comes a-knockin', offering it up to a broader audience.

Superman goes from idea to comic to radio to serial to cartoon to TV show to movie and somewhere along the line achieves iconic status.

The X-Men start out as an idea to comic to canceled comic to revived comic to biggest-selling-comic-on-the-stands to cartoon series to blockbuster tentpole movie franchise to an idea that Hollywood is already looking to reboot.

Let's face it, comics have a velvet rope, an intangible way of rewarding certain characters for being and for keeping others out.

Watchmen had a built in audience that held it up and spread its mighty word around for over twenty years and then it caught the break of being directed by the man who directed Frank Miller's graphic novel, 300. It's pedigree was sealed and was set to take it's place alongside The Dark Knight as a new millennial triumph and then...


Watchmen was the sound of general apathy crashing up against greater expectation.

For Iron Man, who I don't think anyone would have pointed out and said would become a franchise character at any time, there's a Daredevil movie or a Phantom movie, a Shadow movie...

You get my point.

For all the fabled history and possibilities inherent in a character(s) story, why do some just work and others just do not?

We have to ask the same with comics, in general. Why does a character like Iron fist go unloved for decades before someone like a Matt Fraction can see the possibilities inherent in the story-of-a-white-child-raised-in-a-mythical-Asian-esque-city-who-fights-a-dragon-and-takes-its-heart, resulting-in-his-having-the-power-to-shatter-things-with-his-iron-like fist, he-discovers-he's-a-billionaire, meets-a-super-strong-black private-eye-with-bullet-proof-skin-wearing-a-yellow-satin-shirt-and-metal-tiara-and-befriends-him?


How does this not enter into the mainstream while Blade does? How does Iron Fist remain a current comics fixture while Blade, the comic book character, flounders through cancellation after cancellation?

So, my question is this:

What makes a character A-list while others remain behind the velvet rope?


Graig Kent said...

It's the same as how anything enters the cultural zeitgeist, from Star Wars to the Matrix to Mickey Mouse to, the latest entry, Harry Potter. It's part timing and part quality and part accessibility, it's doing something so new and/or so well at a time when nobody else is doing it, capturing the attention of the masses, and then having the longevity to sustain that attention.

But if you look at a Chris Reeves' Superman or Dark Knight or Iron Man, these are quality films with either technologies or sensibilities their genre hasn't seen before. Hellboy, sure, they're decent movies with good effects and fine acting, but they're not that next level of film that made him a household name. There wasn't a Burger King toy line and a Saturday morning cartoon to sustain any popularity.

If a comic book character is going to break big, A-level, he or she has to entice the family in some way. Batman and Superman started with serials in the 1930s, live action TV shows in the 50s and 60s. The Hulk and Wonder Woman didn't break large until their live-action showcases in the 1970's. But with todays 500 channels, viewership is nowhere as concentrated as it once was. With videogames vying with movies and tv and comics and music for entertainment attention the focus isn't as centered as it used to be, so this formula won't work. In other words, the Human Target won't be a breakout, nor will any character from Smallville.

If Captain Marvel hadn't had the litigation problems with DC in the 1950s there's no doubt he would be A-list as well (and if they do get the Shazam film off the ground and do it right, he will be a mammoth once again, the fantasy of the concept is so ripe for a kids' audience).

Will Green Lantern make it? It's possible, if it can visually be innovative (can you imagine a glowing green 3-D fist coming out of the screen!) and really get the space opera coolness of GL to the public, the definitely yes.

Will Thor? If it can capture the mythology depths of Lord of the Rings but still appease the layman, sure.

But will Avatar and the Na'vi continue to permeate ala Star Wars or Star Trek?
Not a chance. Not even like Aliens or Terminator.
It's a technological flash in the pan, but its story (from what I've heard) just won't hold up as the years pass and better films make use of it (see, possibly GL).


kingbeauregard said...

I say there are maybe only a couple good movies that can be made about a given comic book character, and even then, maybe even not that many. A comic book movie always needs to quickly answer one question in the viewer's mind: "Why should I care?" At some level all movies have to answer that question, but for comic book movies it is a far more pressing concern than with, say, a cop movie: a cop movie can do all right even if the audience isn't emotionally invested, but with comic book characters the emotional investment is crucial.

This is the point where the (first couple) Spiderman movies succeeded but the Daredevil movie did not: "Daredevil" did nothing to get the viewer to click with Matt Murdock, while "Spiderman" had Tobey Maguire Tobey Maguiring his little heart out and it got the audience firmly on his side. "Batman Begins" also put considerable effort into showing Bruce Wayne as someone trying to find a way to make a difference, rather than just putting him in a costume and telling people "I'm Batman".

And of course, Robert Downey Jr spent a lifetime preparing for the role of a smarmy yet charming celebrity with substance abuse problems; he hit the ground running and audiences could feel it.

I suspect "Green Lantern" will go the way of "Daredevil", because everyone gets so distracted by the ring. Focus on Hal as a new recruit in a corps rather than a guy with a magic ring and it might work out.

Actually they really should have done an Alan Scott movie. Think "Rocketeer" in terms of setting, costuming, and feel; but instead of a jetpack, imagine a guy who finds a magic Chinese ring that, according to legend, contains the spirit of a dragon, whose flame Alan can control only imperfectly. (So this wouldn't be Alan Scott at the peak of his skill or in costume, except perhaps for a costume ball scene.) Now throw in some Nazis, a reanimated horror of Nazi mysticism (Solomon Grundy), and maybe a pudgy cab driver, and you've got a thing.